Recent Commonplace Entries


“We had to bring them here where they could do no harm. They are victims of history. Pitiable perhaps as individuals. But we had to sacrifice them to save the country. Some became real criminals in their blind hatred, like Kamenev and Zinoviev, for instance. These two were quite near here before they were taken to the Moscow trial. And even here they tried to organize cells and opposition groups within their own small community. It was a real scandal.” (Local inhabitant in Turukhansk, on Trotskyists, from H. P. Smolka’s Forty Thousand Against the Arctic, p 77)

“’Lenin taught us: He is an idiot who believes in words.’ She [Ostroumova] had been a secretary to Lenin in the days of the revolution, and until a few years ago to Kalinin, the President of the Soviet Union. She loved to quote Stalin’s proverb: ‘American efficiency, German accurateness, Bolshevik ideology – that’s what we need.’” (from H. P. Smolka’s Forty Thousand Against the Arctic, pp 177-178)

“But a man whose career was glorious without intermission, decade after decade, does sorely try our patience.” (Max Beerbohm on Goethe, according to Benjamin George Friedman in NYT, July 2)

“As soon as I’m told not to laugh at something, then it immediately becomes hysterically funny. Disorder is very, very close to order. It’s a bus ticket away from total chaos.” (Michael Palin, from interview in NYT, July 2)

“Poet Stephen Spender was taken aback to find himself attacked after writing an article for the New Statesman, in which he had stated that the International Brigades were Communist controlled. According to Spender, ‘the correspondent agreed that the facts in my article were true, but he said nonetheless that I should not have written them’; Spender was informed that ‘he should consider not the facts, but the result which might follow from writing them.’ ‘Apparently, truth’, Spender concluded, ‘like freedom, lay in the recognition of necessity.’” (from David Baxell’s Unlikely Warriors, p 290)

“The well-to-do local whites (except for the Afrikaners) offered hospitality to the troops, entertaining them with drives round local sights and to sumptuous meals in their homes  . . . One family issuing its invitation added a P.S. ‘No Jews please’. At the appointed time five soldiers arrived at the house and the butler opened the door to five Blacks. The lady of the house said there seemed to be some mistake. ‘Oh no,’ said the men. ‘Our colonel never makes mistakes. Not Colonel Cohen.’” (By ex-International Brigader David Crook, quoted by David Baxell, in Unlikely Warriors, pp 440-441)

“The tragedy of this war is not only that Spaniards are fighting Spaniards, but that Basques are fighting Basques.” (Navarrese friend of Peter Kemp, as reported by him in I Fought for Franco, in Purnell’s The History of the Twentieth Century, No 58)

“As I get older I find it easier to lie awake nights over other people’s troubles. But thats [sic] as far as I go to date. In good time I will join them in death to show our common sympathy.” (Robert Frost, in letter, quoted by David Bromwich in TLS, July 7)

“For indeed, outside of a self-supporting monastery, or the hypothetical desert island, it is almost impossible to live at all without in some degree compounding with evil. If we have to earn our living, we may be engaged in a struggle to out-wit competition in producing a commodity no better than theirs; or it may be in producing a commodity that the world would be better without. If we do not have to earn a living, we are freer, certainly, but with no better conscience, for we live by lending money, or by drawing profit from businesses over which we have no control, of the conduct of which we know nothing, and towards whose doings we are wholly irresponsible. Any scheme for the reconstruction of the economic world, therefore, which will operate for social justice, and which will not demand the absolute adherence, the surrender of Christian allegiance, that fascism or communism demands, has a strong appeal.” (T.S. Eliot, in The Christian in the Modern World [1935], first published in TLS, July 7)

“Any great economic change is certain to have far-reaching effects which cannot be predicted: we do not know in advance even where to look for such changes. We must take the risk. We are doing that in any case, even if we let things drift; any piece of simple legislation may have unexpected consequences; everything that happens has unexpected consequences.” (T.S. Eliot, in The Christian in the Modern World [1935], first published in TLS, July 7)

‘To cry for peace, but ignore the causes of war that are capable of being dealt with by intelligence alone, is worse than folly. There is a difference too between maintaining that war is evil, as the Christian does, and maintaining that peace is a positive good, as the sentimentalist does. Indeed, in the modern world, war is a pleasanter state of things than peace.” (T.S. Eliot, in The Christian in the Modern World [1935], first published in TLS, July 7)

“Nothing in the world hears as many silly things said as a picture in a museum.” (Wallace Stevens, ‘quoting a 19th-century French source, in a 1951 lecture at the Museum of Modern Art’, according to Holland Cotter, in NYT, July 7)

“A statesman – Bismarck if I am not mistaken – once said that to accept a thing in principle means, in the language of diplomacy, to reject it in effect.” (Lenin, according to Catherine Merridale in Lenin on the Train, p 169)

“It is unusual for governments to record unnecessarily in written documents  . . . data that can be used against them.” (George F. Kennan, in The Sisson Documents, from the Journal of Modern History, 28:2 [June 1956], quoted by Catherine Merridale in Lenin on the Train, p 253)

“Illicit finance is a dirty little crime, but lying is corrosive in the longer term. Instead of trusting the masses with the truth about his German friends, Lenin opted to lecture them. Instead of confiding in them, he lied. It was the price he paid in the short term, on their behalf, to save them from their own weakness. He then went on to make 150 million people free (or so he claimed) by subjecting them to a merciless political elite.” (Catherine Merridale in Lenin on the Train, p 265)

“The darkest secret of all was that the men in charge had private doubts. Though they preached dogma to the world, they did not quite believe it for themselves.” (Catherine Merridale in Lenin on the Train, p 266)

“Here was proof of the fact that the SSD was no exception to the historic rule that a dictatorship’s secret policeman are often more astute than the regime they are supposed to protect.” (from The General Was A Spy, by Heinz Höhne & Hermann Zolling, p 200)

“It is in any case hard to find a common denominator between a secret service and democracy; a democratic society increasingly tends to demand public control and absence of secrecy; a secret service, however, must be secret simply because its task is to protect the secrets of its own country and discover those of others.” (from The General Was A Spy, by Heinz Höhne & Hermann Zolling, p 257)

“We now know that for any society to lift itself out of absolute poverty it needs to build three critical state institutions: taxation, law and security. The other stuff, such as health care, education, safety nets, is indisputably highly desirable, but without these first three nothing else can be sustained. Without a capacity to tax there is no meaningful state: for the libertarians who fondly imagine the idylls of a post-state society, I recommend living in Somalia. Crucially, once the state starts getting tax revenue, it has an incentive to grow the economy. Inadvertently, even rulers who have little interest in the well-being of citizens thereby benefit them. Without the rule of law, there is no sanctity of contract or property, so trade and investment are paltry. Without security, bandits rove: people protect themselves by not accumulating assets, or by pre-emptive violence. Hence, without these three capacities, life is nasty, brutish and short: this was indeed the condition of most of the world, for most of human existence.” (Paul Collier, in TLS, July 14)

“An opener, a brightener, a lifter, a tincture, a large gin and tonic without the tonic, a snifter, a snorter, a snort.” (Denis Thatcher’s routine on long-distance flights, according to Ben Wright in Order, Order: The rise and fall of political drinking, quoted in TLS, July 21)

“Either senior management knew what was going on or they did not. If they knew, then they were complicit. If they did not, they were incompetent.” (‘one former regulator’, about UBS, quoted by Ben Chu in Prospect, August 2017)

“I must confess that we British liaison officers were slow to understand their point of view; as a nation we have always tended to assume that those who do not wholeheartedly support us in our wars have some sinister motive for not wishing to see the world a better place.” (from Peter Kemp’s The Thorns of Memory, p 200)

“I never returned to Albania. Within the year communist forces of the LNC and Kosmet had overrun the country. Implacable in their hatred of the British who had nursed them they were determined to destroy all those considered to be our friends. In the eyes of the new rulers of Albania collaboration with the British was a far greater crime than collaboration with the Germans. The fury of the new regime was directed especially against those Albanians who, as our allies, had submerged their political differences with the communists in a united effort to win their country’s freedom. Such men were marked for destruction because their fighting record gave the lie to the communist claim that the Communist Party alone represented the Albanian people in their fight for independence.” (from Peter Kemp’s The Thorns of Memory, p 231)

“We commented on the lack of interest that all of them, old and young, showed in the personalities of the exiled Polish government in London – an indifference which we found everywhere in Poland. It has often been remarked that governments-in-exile tend to lose touch with the people they claim to represent; they tend also to lose their respect.” (from Peter Kemp’s The Thorns of Memory, p 245)

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